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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

NBC Declares Situation in Iraq Civil War; Why Are Journalists Obsessed With Paris Hilton?

Aired December 3, 2006 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Turning point. Have journalists decided that the war is an all-out debacle even as President Bush and Iraq's prime minister say otherwise? Was NBC making a political statement in declaring the conflict a civil war? And the Iraq correspondents who took flack from Dick Cheney and others for reporting that the war was going badly, were they right all along?

NBC's Richard Engel, David Gergen and "New York Times" columnist Nick Kristof join our discussion.

We'll always have Paris. Why on earth do the media keep obsessing about Paris Hilton and her party girlfriends?

Plus, no laughing matter. Will the Michael Richards apology tour ever end?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the increasingly negative coverage of an increasingly difficult situation in Iraq.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

President Bush finally met with the Iraqi prime minister in Jordan this week, but a scheduled dinner session the night before was canceled after "The New York Times" obtained a classified memo in which a top White House official expressed little confidence in Nuri al-Maliki. The leak came as top network anchors arrived in Jordan. Their newscasts filled with correspondents and pundits describing the situation in Iraq as a political and military disaster.

And NBC chose this week to make a semantic change in how it describes the conflict, beginning with Matt Lauer on "The Today Show" debated across the airwaves.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: For months now, the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war, and for the most part news organizations like NBC have hesitated to characterize it as such. But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted. CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: You can call it anarchy, you can call it chaos, you can call it civil war. Whatever you call it, the events of recent days demonstrate that the situation in Iraq is at a critical juncture.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: The Bush administration is still not calling it a civil war.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: If this is not a civil war, then I don't want to see one when it comes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Call it a civil war, an insurrection, or just plain hell.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN, "NEW YORK TIMES" COLUMNIST: It is not a civil war, Meredith. It's something worse than a civil war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is this the Walter Cronkite moment of the Iraq war?

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: They think that they're Walter Cronkite and they want to have an impact here, but they've never done the -- they've never given the American public the story about all of the success in Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Joining us now in Baghdad, CNN International Correspondent Arwa Damon. In Beirut, Richard Engel, NBC's Middle East bureau chief. Here in Washington, Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project of Excellence in Journalism. And Rajiv Chandrasekaran, assistant managing editor and former Baghdad bureau chief of "The Washington Post" and author of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone."

Richard Engel, why did NBC make this declaration of a civil war? I didn't know that networks had foreign policies. And how do you respond to critics such as CBS executive producer Rome Hartman, who said this was a political statement by the network and not a news judgment?

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS: Thank you for having me, Howard.

I'm here in Beirut. As you can see behind me there are some demonstrations ongoing. So I'll try and talk over them.

I don't think that decision to call it a civil war was politically motivated at all. I think it was very much driven by what the reports are coming from the ground, what I'm reporting in Baghdad when I'm there, what our military analysts are seeing, and what Iraqis themselves are saying. They believe that it is a civil war and that Iraqis have been calling it that for about a year now.

You have sectarian violence at a level that is organized. You have competing factions that are -- that have very distinct political goals. The Sunnis are fighting for their own survival. They believe that they have no future in Iraq as long as this current government is in power.

So it is not just a situation on the ground that is unorganized chaos while driven by criminals. You have political and militant groups fighting it out at a very efficient, militarized level, and I think that's what led the -- led us at NBC to start calling it a civil war.

KURTZ: Mark Jurkowitz, FOX News put out a statement on this saying that, "Some are using the term 'civil war' to indicate failure, not inside Iraq, but on U.S. policy in Iraq. We're unwilling to fall into that tender trap. We're not using the term because there are non-Iraqis in the fray, and that makes it something different."

MARK JURKOWITZ, PROJECT FOR EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM: Well, it's a semantic battle right now, and it's fascinating to watch. The NBC issue and having Matt Lauer sort of front their policy here, I'm not sure that there's substantive disagreement so much with what NBC did, because there are a lot of other media outlets, including "The New York Times" and "Los Angeles Times," that have been calling this civil war.

There's sort of a sense of -- there's a question of whether it was grandstanding or not. I think that's sort of the issue among the media right now.

KURTZ: They didn't just start using the term. They made this big announcement, some of which we saw just a moment ago.

Rajiv, is civil war a reasonable description of what's going on in Iraq? And if so, why is "The Washington Post" not using the term?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think it is, and I think "The Post" has sort of approached it in two different ways.

On the editorial pages, "The Post" has been, I think, a little bit more liberal, if you will, in using the term "civil war," but in the news columns it has left it up to reporters and editors. And you see the phraseology sort of imminent civil war, or escalating civil war, but not sort of a formal declaration like that.

I just feel here, Howie, that the debate over the terminology really just is a distraction from the real issue here, which is, how do you deal with the conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites? And I think that the White House is -- and other elements in this country, their lack of accepting the term, I think, leads us down a path where policy is not always as focused on addressing that important subject.

KURTZ: No matter what we call it a lot of people are dying there.

Arwa Damon, CNN says it's just following the debate over the use of the term "civil war." Is that a term that you would feel comfortable using in your reports?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, look, there are certain realities here that you cannot deny. You cannot deny the numbers of people that are dying on both sides. You cannot deny the ever-increasing number of bodies that are showing up at the morgue, all that have died horrific deaths.

You cannot deny the real they Iraqis are out there every day, some are carrying two I.D. cards, one Sunni, one Shia. You cannot deny the ethnic cleansing that is happening.

I mean, in terms of whether it's a civil war or not, we have that debate all of the time amongst ourselves as journalists here with our Iraqi staff, with members of the Iraqi government. And you tend to see the shift where members of the Iraqi government and the U.S. administration are not comfortable and are not going to be calling it a civil war, for the most part, because that does admit a certain amount of defeat. But when you speak with the Iraqi people, if we're going to listen to their voices, increasingly they are calling this a civil war, and they're saying that it happened a long time ago.

KURTZ: Right.

Richard Engel, this seems to be the week for leaked memos. First we had that memo from National security Adviser Stephen Hadley, leaked to "The New York Times," which came out during the president's visit with Prime Minister Maliki in Jordan in which Hadley talked about how Maliki was either ignorant, or misrepresenting his position, or incapable of bringing the violence under control. And this morning in "The New York Times" and some other papers, Don Rumsfeld -- let me just get a look at that here. The memo was leaked.

He wrote this just before the election. "In my view," says the defense secretary, "it is time for a major adjustment. Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough."

My question do you is, does this show that administration officials have been misleading journalists all along with some of their public, upbeat descriptions of Iraq?

ENGEL: I think it shows that the message of "stay the course," at least within the White House, has been discredited for some time.

The war in Iraq has change several times. What we're -- what the American soldiers are fighting in right now and what we are seeing as reporters in Iraq is not the same war that it began with.

In the initial phases, it was a very clear conflict with American forces entering Iraq and trying to topple the government. Then there was one to try and stabilize the country so they could hold elections. Then we see a counterinsurgency, and now we've entered yet a new phase. What I think we are -- what the White House officials in these memos are acknowledging, that the military has entered a new phase of the conflict and that a new strategy is needed, one that, unfortunately, has not been clearly voiced up until now.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Richard, which side of the Lebanon conflict are those demonstrators behind you on?

ENGEL: Yes. Right now they are mostly pro-Hezbollah supporters. They are demanding that the government of Lebanon, which is pro- American, be toppled, and that these supporters be given more power in the state.

It is also connected to the situation in Iraq in that there is a great power struggle under way between the Syrians and the Iranians on one side, who are supporting these demonstrators here on the streets, and the U.S., which is putting forth its vision for a new Middle East, who are supporting the prime minister. The prime minister's office is just a few blocks from here. The prime minister has been staying at his offices, along with eight other ministers who are spending the night in the building, fearing assassination attempts.

KURTZ: Right.

ENGEL: So there are -- there is a debate over Middle East policy being played out right in the streets behind me here.

KURTZ: Mark Jurkowitz, we find out now what some administration officials really think, the Rumsfeld memo, the Hadley memo. Is there a credibility gap emerging here?

JURKOWITZ: Well, first of all, I think what we're finding out here is that defeat is an orphan. And I think we have a lot of people who don't want to claim parentage anymore. That's the feeling that we're getting this week.

I think there's a sense exacerbated by media coverage as well. Colin Powell called it a civil war, for example, this week. You get a sense that the sort of -- the political structure around the war is kind of crumbling, and I think it's a measure of how far we've gone on this.

Despite what Sean Hannity said, a while ago the argument really was -- against the media was you're not showing the positive things. Now the only argument is, it sectarian violence, is it a violent insurgency, or is it civil war? We're down to debating semantics, not sort of the level of what's going on here.

KURTZ: The president often denounces leaks of classified information. This Hadley memo was classified, but no denunciation this time because "The New York Times" said it came from an administration official.

So you see a little bit of a double standard there?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Totally. I mean, when it suits the purposes, information is leaked out. And I think clearly here you have the administration wanting to put some pressure on Prime Minister Maliki and using "The New York Times" to do so.

KURTZ: So you believe this is a deliberate orchestration of putting this information out?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I believe it was. I believe that it was the result of good, aggressive reporting by Michael Gordon at "The New York Times," but I think the administration also saw a political benefit from putting some pressure on Maliki in the public sphere. I think this was all calculated.

KURTZ: Arwa Damon, we have been told publicly, at least, that reports of strains between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government were overblown, perhaps exaggerated by the press. Now that we have these memos, I'm wondering if we're getting a better -- if journalists are getting a better, clearer picture of reality.

DAMON: I think we are. I think most certainly at least what those memos have served to do is to echo and reemphasize what we have been hearing on the streets of Iraq for quite some time now.

We have been reporting how Iraqis feel about their government, the lack of faith they have in their government, the lack of faith they have in Nuri al-Maliki's ability to lead them. At least what we're seeing right now is an echoing of what we've been hearing on the Iraqi street. A lot of things that both -- not just from Iraqis, but senior U.S. and Iraqi officials here are being re-emphasized by this memo.

KURTZ: Richard Engel, top administration officials, as you well know, have repeatedly criticized correspondents like you for painting an unnecessarily negative picture of what's going on in Iraq, staying in the Green Zone, and all of that. Now that this -- even the private doubts and reservations of the White House and the Pentagon are coming out, do you feel vindicated?

ENGEL: No. It's been very frustrating all along to be at the receiving end of that criticism with acquisitions like we just spend all of our time in the Green Zone.

For the record, neither your reporters, Arwa Damon right now in Baghdad, or almost any of the reporters who cover Iraq do so from the Green Zone, but go out every day either with the U.S. military or driving around the city of Baghdad. And to say that we somehow have been just lazy and picking up bad reports to try to make the American mission in Iraq somehow seem like a failure is inaccurate. It's also, in some degree, dangerous.

I mean, I know reporters, colleagues of mine who have received so much criticism over the last three and a half, four years, that they felt they've had something to prove. And so they put themselves in extraordinarily dangerous situations. And I know one reporter who was kidnapped as a result of it.

So it's not a sense of vindication, but it is good that people are finally starting to finally see that the situation in Iraq is tremendously difficult, and it is not just reporters who are looking for bad -- bad news stories.

KURTZ: Right.

ENGEL: Iraqis have repeatedly told me time and time again that it's much worse than it appears on television.

KURTZ: Rajiv, when you were in Baghdad, and as an editor, did you resent the criticism that journalists were providing a distorted picture and perhaps afraid of going out into the provinces?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I sure did. I mean, look, we were out there, I think, getting out and about far more than most American officials, who were in many cases cloistered in the Green Zone. I write a lot about that in my book.

You know, many of the American diplomats and reconstruction workers were really confined to Baghdad. They were getting out and really getting just a soda straw view of the country, whereas you had reporters who were wearing head-to-toe black burkas and getting in Iraqi clothing, finding other creative ways to get around and see what was happening in the country.

And when you'd hear these comments saying that we were just confined to our hotel rooms, you know, I was very close at some points to just sending an open letter out to American officials saying, "If you'd like to come and spend a week embedded with me, I'll show you around the country."

KURTZ: Interesting divide among the newsweeklies. New issues out today. Let's put up the covers.

The "TIME" cover says the Iraq Study Group says "It's Time for an Exit Strategy. Why Bush Will Listen." But "Newsweek" has a question mark, "Will Bush Listen?"

So I guess we'll find out in the coming weeks which of these magazines is going in the right direction.

When we come back, are the media just scratching the surface when it comes to the rawness of the violence in Iraq?

Coming up 11:00 a.m. Eastern, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad joins "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER."

And at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, John Roberts hosts "THIS WEEK AT WAR."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: You're looking at shots of Beirut right there, where anti-government demonstrators have taken to the streets in large numbers to protest against the Lebanese government, where we go to NBC's Richard Engel.

You wrote on your blog this week that what's happening between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq is ethnic cleansing. You say your best friend's wife hasn't left the house in six months. You touched on this earlier.

If television isn't capturing the full horror of what's going on in that country, why not?

ENGEL: It's become very difficult for reporters to go to areas like the Anbar Province, or even -- even with the military. If you are embedded with the U.S. Marines in Ramadi or Falluja, effectively you're on a combat mission or you're on some sort of brief mission to go meet a local official and then to pull out.

It's almost impossible to spend a great amount of time in these -- in these dangerous cities to describe what Iraqi witnesses tell us what is going. They come to our offices, all of them have horror stories.

Almost all of our reporters who come from places like Diyala and the Anbar Province all have relatives who have been -- who have been killed, other relatives who have been kidnapped. People are fleeing the country. So it is often very difficult to get the images out of places like this and turn them into television reporting.

KURTZ: Arwa Damon in Baghdad, do you share some of the same frustrations in terms of where you can go, what you can report without unduly risking your life?

DAMON: Absolutely. All the time.

I think that is one of the more frustrating things with being a reporter trying to cover Iraq right now, is, first of all, your lack of ability to just move around and figure out exactly what is going in this country. In terms of the violence, when events happen, we can't go out to that location on site anymore and do our own news gathering. We're increasingly reliant on our Iraqi staff, on our Iraqi stringers. And they're really the ones that are bearing the brunt of the reporting here for us and take the most risks.

Plus, add to that just the reality that so much happens here that people don't even hear about. You hear the horror stories afterwards speaking to your friends, and there are few people, Iraqis that are here right now, that don't have some sort of a horror story that has either happened to their family or someone who they know.

KURTZ: Right.

DAMON: It's really very difficult to get a grasp on the full picture of what is happening here.

KURTZ: Mark Jurkowitz, Iraq is a huge story right now, but it has faded in and out of the news depending on other things that are going on.

Are the media suffering from Iraq fatigue?

JURKOWITZ: On some level I think they are. And I think the public is, too. And that's why on some level I think that the whole argument on civil war is a little bit of a semantics debate.

You know, they say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, we've seen the pictures from Iraq, and they've been steady and they've made the same point for some time now. There's an incredible level of violence, it's seeped in, I think, to the American public. I think it was reflected on Election Day.

I don't think that the American public cares whether it's called a civil war, an insurgency, or anything like that. I think they've got an overall picture from the media coverage. We've been knowing for a while that this is a mess, and we're almost in a way sort of tired of seeing it.

KURTZ: And if that's true, Rajiv, when you were a reporter there, when you're an editor now, how do you make today's suicide bombing, 50 Iraqis killed in a marketplace, sound different than yesterday's or last week's?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I think you try to find new angles into it and try to write about the lives of average Iraqi people.

As Richard and Arwa were saying, I mean, just the very difficult conditions people there have to live with, you know, carrying two sets of I.D. cards, the fact that almost everybody has a relative, a friend, a neighbor who has suffered, who has been either killed or kidnapped, those are the sorts of stories that we're now trying to get on to the front page of the newspaper. Just the, you know, X numbers of people killed in today's attack, it's very tough for those stories to rise to the nightly news or to the front page of "The Washington Post."

KURTZ: Right. Body count journalism is getting a little repetitive.

Thanks very much, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Mark Jurkowitz, Arwa Damon in Baghdad, Richard Engel for NBC in Beirut.

We appreciate it.

Next on RELIABLE SOURCES, what other big-name journalist was serious flirting with interviewing O.J. Simpson on camera and why that was a costly decision.

Plus, a British tabloid editor admits how he got some of his scoops on the royal family.

And later, did administration officials unfairly slime correspondents in Iraq? "New York Times" columnist Nick Kristof and veteran journalist David Gergen will weigh in on that.

And our e-mail question this week: Should news organizations call the fighting in Iraq a civil war?

You can send us your thoughts at reliable@cnn.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Time now for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): Rupert Murdoch and his news corporation have been denounced throughout the civilized world for cozying up to O.J. Simpson with that abominable "If I Did It" book and FOX TV deal. But what about Barbara Walters?

The ABC star, "Newsweek" reports, was deep into discussions about doing a television special about the murders with Simpson. So deep that when Walters finally decided to pass, ABC had to pay News Corp. a $1 million kill fee for tying up the deal.

In a statement worthy of the State Department, ABC said that, "We ultimately decided that this project was not in our best interest to pursue and that any conversations after that were 'purely relationship based and confidential.'"

Translation, the story is true and we don't want to talk about it.

Judith Miller has lost another battle in the Supreme Court, and to the same prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, who had her jailed for 85 days when she initially refused to testify in the CIA leak investigation. The former "New York Times" reporter and another "Times" staffer, Phil Shenon, are trying to stop Fitzgerald from reviewing their phone records in an effort to uncover their confidential sources.

The fight stems from a 2001 "Times" story disclosing that federal authorities were prepared to freeze the assets of two Islamic charities suspected of terrorist ties. In the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the press, the Supreme Court this week refused to address an appeals court order allowing Fitzgerald to inspect the phone records.

British authorities became suspicious of Clive Goodman, the royal editor of "The News of the World" tabloid when he kept coming up with inside scoops about Prince Charles. Goodman was charged over the summer with a wiretapping scheme at Clarence House, where the prince lives with his wife Camilla. Goodman pleaded guilty this week to intercepting voice messages. The newspaper has apologized to the royal family.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Bloody awful.

Ahead in our next half hour, they're breathlessly covered by the celebrity rags, but why does the mainstream press keep panting after Britney Spears and Paris Hilton?

Plus, columnist Nick Kristof and David Gergen on why the reporting from Iraq has turned so dramatically negative since the early days of the war.

That's all ahead after the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

Correspondents in Iraq have been under fire in more ways than one. Beyond the physical dangers, they've had to take incoming rounds from administration officials and other critics who have challenged their reporting. But does their work look very different now that Iraqi violence is spiraling out of control?

I spoke earlier with Nick Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of "The New York Times," from our New York bureau, and from the Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina, David Gergen, editor-at- large of "U.S. News and World Report," a former presidential adviser, and professor at Harvard's Kennedy School for Journalism.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

Nick Kristof, in your column this week, you quote current and former administration officials as criticizing the media coverage in Iraq. We happen to have some of those remarks on tape. Let's roll that.

Paul Wolfowitz and Don Rumsfeld on press coverage of Iraq.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

PAUL WOLFOWITZ, DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much. So they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KURTZ: The headline on your column was "The Cowards Turned Out to be Right." What did you mean by that?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, you know, to the extent that Paul Wolfowitz had basically said that the problem was cowardice on the part of the press corps, I just wanted to point out that, in fact, if you look back, that it was those people who really got it right.

And I think one of the lessons is the importance of empiricism over ideology. And I think both left and right -- but in this case, it was the administration on the right -- really came and approached this and, you know, didn't want to listen to those people on the ground who were living there, in some cases, speaking the local language, and that's a lesson that we should think about for the future.

KURTZ: David Gergen, have journalists in Iraq, who, by the way, are understandably concerned about not getting kidnapped or killed, been unfairly denigrated over the past couple of years by some in the administration?

DAVID GERGEN, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: I think that -- yes, I do. I think Nick Kristof is bright on this. But I must tell you, you know, that the pendulum has swung on this.

There was a -- there was a sense, in the lead-up to the war, in which the press, I think, was guilty of cheerleading. We were waving the flags and it was almost unpatriotic to question the possibility of war with Iraq.

And then during the time of the invasion itself, when the reporters were embedded, you know, many of them fell in love with the military. And I think they reported very accurately. But there was no question that they were swayed by what they had seen.

But since they have been there, I do think the press has been on the -- has been on the cutting edge, been the leading indicator of saying it's not going as well as the administration says. And for those who think that the press has not been dealing with -- you know, that the press is being too harsh, we now have the leak of the Hadley memo this week, which shows, within the administration itself, there's a real difference between what they're telling each other internally and what they're saying publicly.

The internal reporting inside the administration is much grimmer and much more similar to what the press says than what the administration has officially been saying.

KURTZ: So are we in the last throes, Nick Kristof, if I can use that phrase, of kind of a great struggle between the dire portrait being painted by journalists who were in Iraq, speaking the language, risking their lives, seeing the suicide bombers day after day, and this more upbeat progress is being made picture painted by the administration?

KRISTOF: Well, I wish I could say that I thought that the administration, you know, had recognized that the problem was the message rather than the messenger. But I think that, in fact, you know, if you look at the Pentagon, in particular, has really made a very major effort to manage the news. And you see that in terms of the new Pentagon channel, the incredible press reaction system that always manages to generate a comment in any language anywhere, and in the early bird news clipping service, which originally was just, you know, a clipping service to provide information to commanders and now has really become one more propaganda channel, you know, picking news articles that they will like and omitting some that they won't like. So I don't see any sign that that kind of effort to manage the news is diminishing at all.

KURTZ: David Gergen, let me pick up on your point about journalists having been cheerleaders for the war early on.

To the extent that that changed, rather dramatically, I should add, was that because of a sense of overcompensation, perhaps a sense of embarrassment at their earlier performance, or did things just get much worse in Iraq, so quickly that the reporting had to change?

GERGEN: I thought it was both, Howie. I thought that the -- you know, you and I have seen this pendulum swing before. Sometimes we in journalism, you know, can build someone up, and then we don't see -- they have feet of clay for a while, and then we do, and then we overcompensate by tearing them down. And I think that happened to a degree in this -- this war.

The journalists did feel -- you know, we were -- we were too easy on the claims of weapons of mass destruction and the mushroom clouds being a reason to go to war. And once we saw that there were no -- you know, no nuclear capacity there, I think we did -- a lot of people in the press felt had. And I think they beat up on the administration to a degree because of that.

So, I do think it is a combination. And Iraq had spiraled downward very rapidly, here in the last few weeks.

Let me just say one other thing, though. I do think if you talk to a lot of young officers who are coming out of Iraq -- and I happen to have some of them in my classroom -- they will tell you, look, there are parts of Iraq that are quiet. And what's this about a civil war? We don't see it. We think the press is -- it's not just the administration saying this, there are actually soldiers on the ground who believe this -- that the press is not accurately reporting it.

And your answer to -- my answer to that is, look, we had a civil war in this country, and just because there was no fighting in New York or in Iowa, does not mean there wasn't a civil war.

KURTZ: And as long as David has used the "C" word, Nick Kristof, NBC, as you know, much ballyhooed decision to begin using the term "civil war." The reaction seems to have ranged from, who do they think they are, to, what took them so long?

KRISTOF: Yes. And, you know, I mean, I think that's a judgment for each organization, but it sure seems to me that if you look at the definitions that are commonly used of a civil war, that that's, you know, exactly what it is and we should call them as we see them, rather than deferring to some kind of political judgment.

But if I could just, also, just weigh in on the point that David made, which I think is, you know, legitimate, that there is a real risk that when we cover an area like Iraq, that because we, in the press, we always focus on the planes that crash, not on the planes that land. You know, the schools that are invaded, not the schools that -- where everything goes fine.

That, you know, we do need to remind readers, periodically, that that is what we're doing. And it may indeed be that we should periodically do more of that. But I don't think that undercuts the basic point that reporters pretty much captured that downward spiral.

GERGEN: Just as they did in Vietnam.

KURTZ: That's funny you should say that, because I was going to ask you that very question. Does the polarization around the media coverage, from both the left and the right, the great passion, the great vehemence, people who think that the press are either aiding the enemy or just -- or late to the game here, remind you of the polarization of the Vietnam era?

GERGEN: Yes, it certainly does me. You know, I think that anytime when a war goes badly, as this one is, people start looking for scapegoats, the people who are supporters of the war. And the media has become one of the scapegoats. And it's an easy target to say they're sitting in the Green Zone.

Well, yes, they're sitting in the Green Zone because it's too darned dangerous sometimes to go out. You know, just look what happened to the co-anchor of ABC News when he did go out.

So, I think that happens. And as "The Washington Post" pointed out this week, you know, there is now a tendency to blame the Iraqis for what's going wrong. Well, we did everything right. Look at those, those are the guys losing the war. So, I think there is a scapegoating of the media going on in some circles.

KRISTOF: There is, I think, one difference, you know, between Vietnam. I do think that there is that tension between the administration and the media. And you know, they think we're exaggerating the problems and we think that they're often, basically, lying to us. But one of the differences that is in Vietnam there was really a sense, you know, on the ground, that those 5:00 follies, those things, there in Saigon, were completely delusional.

While, in fact, I think that reporters on the ground in Baghdad feel that the political officers and the diplomats and the Army officers, on the ground, in Iraq, they have a pretty realistic sense of what's going on. And that the problem is really in Washington and at the Pentagon, and at the highest levels.

KURTZ: Nick, I don't just want to focus solely on administration criticism. You also acknowledge that a lot of criticism of the press coverage of the war has come from the left, from liberals who are unhappy with the coverage.

KRISTOF: Absolutely. I mean, you talk to the reporters and they used to get just deluged with e-mails and letters saying that, "You're exaggerating the problems. You're getting GIs killed. You don't understand what's going on," and those were all coming from the right. And now they're getting an awful lot from the left who are saying, "You're covering up atrocities. I read all these things in the European press that you never cover."

And I just think that both sides need to take a deep breath and just emphasize the importance of empiricism and trusting, to some degree, somebody who is on the ground and really trying to do a very careful job of what is happening.

KURTZ: All right.

David Gergen, Nick Kristof, we'll have to leave it there.

Thanks very much for joining us.

GERGEN: Thank you.

KRISTOF: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: And on a lighter note, what happens when Britney Spears and Paris Hilton decide to become best buds? And why should we care again? Two gossip columnists weigh in on the celebrity party girls next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back.

Iraq may be the week's most important story, but the most gossiped-about story involves three women who are fast becoming more famous as misbehaving party animals than as entertainers.

"The New York Post" calls the latest misadventures of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan a "bimbo summit."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: Could her new best friend, Paris Hilton, cause problems for the pop princess in her custody fight with K-Fed?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN GIBSON, FOX NEWS: A couple sure-fired ways to not get custody if you're the mom. Do what Britney has been doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And given our mandate to scrutinize all kinds of media, we ask the burning question: Why does anyone care?

Joining us now, Katrina Szish, contributing editor for "US Weekly," whose cover story this week is about, you guessed it, Britney and Paris.

So, I'm as interested in gossip as the next red-blooded American, who's got a love child and who's getting divorced. But why should anyone care if Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are going out partying every night?

KATRINA SZISH, "US WEEKLY": It does seem sort of petty, doesn't it? It's one of those things, though, that I think shows you how much the mainstream media has become obsessed with anything pop culture.

It's almost like these girls have become adult cartoon characters, and we love them purely because it's just so ridiculously entertaining. These are people who seem to live lives that you can't imagine that real people would actually live.

KURTZ: We're looking at some video here from the Web site TMZ.com...

SZISH: Yes.

KURTZ: ... which covers entertainment.

Now, look, Britney Spears, at home she's got a 14-month-old and a 2-month-old baby. She dumps her husband, she hits the club. She's photographed in these short dresses without any underwear, and "US" magazine is writing about her makeover.

Why do we celebrate this sort of thing?

SZISH: Well, there are two sides here. When Britney first filed for divorce from Kevin, you saw her with a shorter haircut, she appeared on "David Letterman," she fired her stylist. She did look like she was having a very positive makeover.

In the recent days where she's been clubbing with Paris, well, she's definitely kind of gone back and regressed just a little bit in terms of that makeover that we discussed. However, even though she does have kids, she may party at night, she still maintains the fact that she's a very good mother by day.

And listen, she's in her early 20s. She just got rid of a guy who was probably one of the worst men she could have married ever. She deserves to celebrate just a little bit.

KURTZ: You're referring here to Kevin Federline.

SZISH: Sure am.

KURTZ: And even I know that.

SZISH: Yes.

KURTZ: But as far as -- as far as, you know, whether she's a good mother or not, I mean, she's got these two young babies at home, and this seems to be what she does, going out clubbing. It seems to me you're being awfully soft on her, and I wonder whether all of the people in the business who cover these celebrities are reluctant to criticize them because otherwise they might not get any access.

SZISH: I think it's interesting. I think with Britney, I mean -- really, I mean, this whole parting that we've been discussing has really been going on for about a week. She's been caring for her two young children throughout her entire marriage to Kevin Federline, and she now has a full-time nanny.

I think the problem will be if she continues to party like this night after night for weeks and weeks and weeks. And then we'll be talking about something different, but right now this is a woman who just filed for divorce and it's a shorter period of time right now. I don't think we can scrutinize her just yet.

KURTZ: Well, the one week of partying was enough to make the cover of "US" magazine.

SZISH: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Lindsay Lohan's publicist says she's in Alcoholics Anonymous classes. It just seems to me that everybody kind of looks at them and says, isn't this cute, isn't this interesting, isn't this fun? And nobody blows the whistle on their bad behavior.

SZISH: I don't know about it being cute. I think it's almost more of everybody loves to watch a train wreck. Everybody likes to watch things gone incredibly awry.

We're talking about Lindsay Lohan, who is -- oh, what is she, about 20 years old? And she's going to AA meetings now. Nobody seems to mention that the legal drinking age in the United States is 21.

So I agree with you that a lot of these things that people normally would not be allowed to do would get chastised for doing. They're allowed to get way with a lot more. But again...

KURTZ: I'm glad -- I'm glad you mentioned the legal drinking age.

Let me move on to Paris Hilton, because in the "Chicago Sun- Times," Kay Hymowitz writes the following: "It's not about worship, it's about hatred. Hating Paris Hilton is fun. Americans always enjoy a good smear at the undeserving and decadent rich."

Do you agree with that?

SZISH: I think that's an excellent point. I do think that's part of it.

I think people love to say -- people love to hate Paris. People love to hate all of these girls who seem to party all night and all day long and don't do much of anything, otherwise. Paris particularly, because what does she really do? She's sort of coined the term -- her example, coined the term "celebutante."

She's very wealthy and she doesn't do much of anything else. And you do sort of love to hate her, and it is because she is almost this sort of crazy character that isn't even a real person, that you just are kind of obsessed with the ridiculousness of all of it.

KURTZ: I've got about 20 seconds.

Wasn't there a time when all of the celebrities who got all this gossip coverage had -- what's the word I'm looking for, talent?

SZISH: Talent? I knew where you were going with that.

I think Paris is one of those people who, you know, the idea of talent really just doesn't necessarily go with her name. But when you do talk about Lindsay Lohan, when you do talk about Britney Spears...

KURTZ: Right.

SZISH: ... these are two young women who have proven that they do have marketable skills.

KURTZ: OK. Talent for manipulating the media.

Katrina Szish, thanks very much for joining us.

SZISH: Thank you.

KURTZ: Coming up, no joke. The apology that the media can't seem to let go of.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: If it hadn't been for some patron at the Laugh factory with a cell phone camera, we never would have seen that racist rant by comedian Michael Richards. But then we wouldn't have had to be subjected to all of these apologies either.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL RICHARDS, COMEDIAN: You can talk! You can talk!

KURTZ (voice over): Once he managed to offend western civilization, the man who played Kramer on "Seinfeld" seemed to grasp the great American sorry ritual.

On "David Letterman" he said he was sorry.

RICHARDS: I'm rally busted up over this, and I'm very, very sorry to those people in the audience.

KURTZ: Then Richards kept saying he was sorry. He called Al Sharpton to say he was sorry. He appeared on Jesse Jackson's radio show and said, "I'm sorry."

RICHARDS: I'm shattered by it. The way this came through me was like a freight train.

KURTZ: Just who designated Jackson and Sharpton to accept such apologies on behalf of black people is not exactly clear. What is clear is that there's a media ritual to such matters, requiring the sinner to express regret in high-profile ways.

Mel Gibson tried to make amends for his drunken anti-Semitic tirade, then sat down with Diane Sawyer.

MEL GIBSON, ACTOR: It sounds horrible. And I'm ashamed of that, that that came out of my mouth. And I'm not that. That's not who am.

KURTZ: Hugh Grant sought absolution for hiring a hooker at the elbow of Jay Leno.

JAY LENO, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": What the hell were you thinking?

KURTZ: And once Bill Clinton stopped denying having had sexual relations with "that woman," he also sought spiritual counseling from Jesse Jackson and a group of preachers, saying he was becoming quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness.

And it never ends. After Danny DeVito insulted President Bush this week during a drunken rant on "The View," he left an apologetic message for co-host Barbara Walters and tomorrow he'll try to make amends with Matt Lauer on "The Today Show."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: It's up to his fans, I guess, whether to forgive Richards for his "N" word assault. But how many more apologies are the media going to cover before it looks like they're milking this sad little affair?

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

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